depression and AA: as bill sees it

bill w. and dr. bobjohn at storied mind recently wrote a post on the intersection between depression and the 12 steps of alcoholics anonymous. it just so happens that same evening i was browsing through “as bill sees it”, a compilation of writings by bill w., the founder of that group. it has a few entries on depression. you might find them interesting:

sometimes, we become depressed. … while the surface causes were a part of the picture — trigger-events that precipitated depression – the underlying causes, i am satisfied, ran much deeper. intellectually, i could accept my situation. emotionally, i could not.

to these problems, there are certainly no pat answers. but part of the answer surely lies in the constant effort to practice all of A.A.’s twelve steps. (letter, 1954)

i asked myself, “why can’t the twelve steps work to release me from this unbearable depression?” by the hour, i stared at the st. francis prayer: “it is better to comfort than to be comforted.”

suddenly i realized what the answer might be. my basic flaw had always been dependence on people or circumstances to supply me with prestige, security, and confidence. failing to get these things according to my perfectionist dreams and specifications, i fought for them. and when defeat came, so did my depression.

reinforced by what grace i could find in prayer, i had to exert every ounce of will and action to cut off these faulty emotional dependencies upon people and upon circumstances. then only could i be free to love as francis had loved. (grapevine, AA’s newsletter, january 1958)

when i was tired and couldn’t concentrate, i used to fall back on an affirmation toward life that took the form of simple walking and deep breathing. i sometimes told myself that i couldn’t do even this — that i was to weak. but i learned that this was the point at which i could not give in without becoming still more depressed.

so i would set myself a small stint. i would determine to walk a quarter of a mile. and i would concentrate by counting my breathing — say, six steps to each slow inhalation and four to each exhalation.

having done the quarter-mile, i found that i could go on, maybe a half-mile more. then another half-mile, and maybe another. this was encouraging. the false sense of physical weakness would leave me (this feeling being so characteristic of depressions). the walking and especially the breathing were powerful affirmations toward life and living and away from failure and death. the counting represented a minimum discipline in concentration, to get some rest from the wear and tear of fear and guilt. (letter, 1960)


  1. Wonderful post!

    I want to say, “If Bill could do it, anyone can.”

    He wasn’t the most despicable drunk but he was one of the most egotistical.

    Jung spoke of the archetypes having the power to inflate the ego–rather like psychological shock therapy.

    Could someone please write an essay about the dark humor of the unconscious?

    ~ Alex from Our Evolution

    Alexander M Zoltai’s last blog post..Rationale for This Blog

  2. This is a lovely post with a fresh outlook and a way of thinking about depression that I’ve been searching for. Sometimes you read something that just clarifies the way your mind has been looking at the problem. I’ve known for a long time that my depression is related to my need for certain things and when they don’t happen I get depressed. The answer is definitely to stop focusing on your self and to start helping others, thank you for helping me remember this.

  3. depression is directly related to the 12 steps of AA. could some one direct me to a study or survey to verify this. thanks

  4. There is something I see many people who go to AA. They use the 12 steps, the involvement in the AA process, etc., as crutches. They use these things to intellectualize their problems. They become rigorously involved to hide their problems. AA becomes a crutch because it successfully alleviates the bad feelings people have. They stop drinking, yes, in some cases. Some people stop drinking because they never had a problem with drinking in the first place. However, to truly heal, steps are useless. They are only restrictions that keep you on a strict path to nowhere. The steps are futile. The intellectualization is futile. What really needs to be dealt with is the actual underlying cause of your problems. You are not the root cause of your problems. You can enjoy yourself. You can live as you want to live. You do not need to restrict yourself to eventually recover and reach happiness. You need to understand yourself and really look at the problems that caused you to go to alcohol in the first place, and deal with those problems themselves in a straightforward manner.

  5. Wow. Stranger – have you any knowledge of what you speak? Doesn’t sound like it. When you use the word “intellectualization” it is clear to anyone familiar with the program that you are not.

  6. After 24 years of sobriety, I still wake up crying and hopeless. I keep going, for my son and my friends. I know how much they love me. I have really tried my best in A.A. to work the steps, go to meetings and stay sober. If you’re an alcoholic of this variety, please just hang on, this too shall pass! Jill.

  7. I have been sober for nearly 20 years and life has been very good. My only concern is people hiding behind the Big Book when members suffer from issues other than alcoholism. At least half the people I have met in AA have had bouts of clinical depression (as Wilson did). The literature says that we shouldn’t give medical advice, yet I still constantly hear people stating that “you are not sober if you are on medication”. This is a real problem in every area I have lived. Usually this misguided and ofter malicious idea is proffered by some of the least educated, or worse the “personality” disorder types running for “head guru” at the local meeting.

    AA members need to stop playing doctor, shut up, drop the giant egos, and support people with mental health issues, rather than attack them as “infidels”.

  8. I’ve been sober 10 years & this is my first experience with an online discussion of AA. I’m grinning ear-to-ear because I now know that opinions, beliefs, interpretations of the program are pretty much the same everywhere. All of the comments I’ve read here I’ve heard in meetings many, many times. Its comforting, actually. Because we really are family-those of us who have survived the “shipwreck” or the war; no matter our differences. Anyway, I just want to thank you- I needed to “hear” this. As usual, God got my attention the only way a stubborn drunk like me will listen-good ol’ fashion pain. That letter bill wrote, if you read it in its entirety, discusses his emotional “relapse” into depression after 20 years of sobriety. He explains that the cause, once again, for his hopelessness is self-reliance, dependence upon others/things on the outside (his career) that caused his peace-meter (as I call it) to nose dive. Funny, I was researching something for work and I landed here. I’m crying like an idiot because after 10 years you’d think I would know by now that first comes the squirelies (sorry, I’m from texas-that’s the antsy feeling), then comes the anxiety and then full-blown depression & apathy. Yet, I let it get pretty bad before I remember… its not my job to run this show and if I’m depending on me-and especially my clients (I’m a family law attorney) to give me peace? … lord help us.
    For the lady that has 20 years & still wakes up crying-you don’t have to live like that. That’s not living! God gave you a gift, He/She removed the alcohol or drugs-the obsession. Can your God take the depression, too? Can you give it to Him or Her? Life still happens, and with us, that includes depression, but He took it from me. And when I’m not taking it back :), I promise-He can do it for you. And, yeah, sometimes he uses antidepressants to help, but what difference does it make if you’re free?

  9. Oh, and I am truly sorry, Stranger, but I can’t let this go (pesky lawyers). You are absolutely 100% wrong. You are most certainly entitled to your opinion, but obviously, you can only speak of your own experience. Please, please stop saying these things. This is life and death, dude, not some “intellectual philisophical” idea. Its THE ONLY program that has proven successful to MILLIONS of people. Didn’t work for you-doesn’t work for everyone but what if your words discouraged even one person that The 12 steps could’ve saved? Seriously, please let them have a chance. Personally, I could give a crap WHY I drank. What does it matter? I needed to know two things-how and who. Why was-and still is-irrelevant. Worked for me-and hundreds of others right here in my hometown that I could introduce you to. And not one of them needed to know “why”. Please consider how much damage your words could cause.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.